There’s something about the teenage years that fascinate us. That’s become clear simply from the amount of movies and books that star teenage characters. From high school romances, to young wizards battling a Dark Lord, to teens surviving in a world of utter destruction, the appeal is undeniable – but why? Why does the plight of teenagers pull at our hearts so much? Looking at the age group itself is misleading. You can’t just write a book with a teen in the lead and call it YA. It requires more than that. It requires complexity.
YA books capture something that is beyond just an age group or a setting. It captures that changing point that occurs somewhere after we hit ten and before we reach our twenties. It could be argued that this is the most formative portion of our lives. It’s a time when we have little control, but at the same time are expected to make concrete decisions about our future. It’s a time to learn proper morals and how to subvert social systems. Teens are expected to fit into groups, but somehow express their uniqueness. They may be given the keys to a car, but are told not to drive too far.
Being a teen in today’s culture is a series of gray areas. The oldest child in the family may experience more restrictions than their younger siblings. The child of a dentist may be expected to follow in their parent’s footsteps despite their lack of interest in the field. They are surrounded by unspoken social rules that they are somehow expected not to break. They learn by example. They learn by failure. They learn by watching others make horrible mistakes, and by making their own. Every day requires remaking themselves and remaking their view of the world. They have to break off a piece of themselves and reshape it to the size they are told it should be. For some teens this process is easier than others. Some only go through a difficult time during these years, others go through a living hell.
Good YA books understand this complexity. They understand the struggle, both external and internal. They understand that teens are trying to forge themselves into the adult they will be: a mixture of what is expected and what they want. Growing up is a compromise between the old guard and the new, and some may not be given the choice to compromise at all.
In my novella, The She-Wolf of Kanta, I try to capture this internal tug-of-war. I try to show how Mercy is pulled between various groups, and how her future is hardly ever her own to choose. She is a victim of the society she lives in as much as she is part of it, but she must learn that she can forge her own path. She must learn that she has the ability to choose for herself what her future will be. Even if it means risking her life.
Perhaps that is the most inspiring part of YA books. They show that it is possible to resist expired social norms. They show that it is possible to be the person you want to be instead of who you are told to be. They show that it is possible to change the world. In fact, teens are doing that right now.
This is the first in a series of weekly blog posts where I analyze aspects of books & media from teen representation to diversity. I hope you’ll join me.